Friday, March 30, 2018

Stop Forcing Children To Be Miniature Adults

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the Parkland, Florida, shooting

When the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag briefly trended on social media during this month’s nationwide student anti-violence walkout, I observed two reactions. Those favoring this hashtag insisted that if children simply behaved more civilly toward one another, embracing differences and treating outcasts well, they mightn’t lash out violently. Opponents responded with outrage: how dare you expect children to identify and overcome differences that trained adults are too busy, short-staffed, and underfunded to address?

It took weeks for me to realize the problem with both claims: they’re both being ballyhooed by adults. And children are not simply miniature adults.

This week’s autobiographical essay by Isabelle Robinson, who briefly peer-tutored the Parkland, Florida, school shooter, hit close to home for me. Specifically, the opening anecdote where the shooter (I’ve resolved never to glorify mass shooters by repeating their names) flung objects at her, in public, unprovoked. Because something similar happened to me. And my mother said, basically, #WalkUpNotOut… and I wondered what possessed her.

Back in about 1987, standing in the crowded, anarchic space where kids from outlying neighborhoods queued for buses after school, I stood leaning against a pillar, doing literally nothing, when I felt a sudden shooting pain in my back. Wincing in pain, turning to see what happened, I saw another student standing over me with a smirk on his face. Without explanation, he’d walked up and punched me in the kidneys. From behind.

To this day I don’t know why he did this. I don’t even remember his name; my family relocated just months later. My family relocated frequently throughout my youth, because my father’s military career had him moving from station to station, approximately every two years. And because I almost always had exactly two academic years to cultivate friendships, only to see them end, I didn’t learn to take long views of relationships outside my nuclear family until I was an adult.

Therefore, when my mother told me to make friends with my bully, I believed her. I saw no reason to doubt her sincerity in telling me bullies acted with hostility because they were lonely, isolated outsiders seeking friendship themselves. She regaled me with stories of her own childhood, approaching sad-eyed waifs on the schoolyard and becoming their friends. If I simply befriended my bullies, Mom said, they wouldn’t lash out and, y’know, kidney-punch me from behind.

I don’t believe my mother had any malicious intent in spreading this message, and I don’t believe people sharing the #WalkUpNotOut hashtag do either. They all probably believe that childhood relationships organize around principles much like adult relationships. Or anyway, like how they believe adult relationships work, but we’ll return to this. They simply cannot believe that children are fundamentally different.

Emma Gonzalez, possibly the most visible
face of the current public movement
But children don’t think like adults. They haven’t internalized moral reasoning; they either follow rules, or rebel against them. They cannot take long views of difficult situations, because time for them exists in short segments matching the depth of their memories. And when they see authority wielded over them in schools, households, after-school jobs, and extracurricular activities, in ways that appear arbitrary, they believe power is something people seize, not something they earn.

So, y’know, they punch one another. Sometimes that escalates.

Despite adults’ best intentions, grown-up relationships seldom work according to principles of reciprocity and respect either. The biggest jackass at the workplace often has the most “friends,” because people hope to avoid his barbs by earning his good feelings. Not only does this not work, but too often, higher-ups see this jerk with a big circle, assume he’s influential, and offer him promotions first. Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it.

And that’s just people who try befriending bullies. Too many adults don’t talk to peers who don’t share their political, religious, or social worldviews. Some sources, admittedly partisan, suggest Americans are more divided, and less likely to talk to or trust one another, than at any time since the Civil War. So we, as adults, simultaneously don’t talk to one another, and talk to the wrong people. And we expect children, children, to do better.

I tried befriending my bullies, because I believed my mother. It never ended well. I’d wind up humiliated, treated worse, sometimes even bleeding. But worst was when these bullies roped me into bullying others, and I’d go along, knowing I’d get the same or worse if I didn’t comply. I don’t know how many people alive today see me as part of their childhood problems. I can’t know, because we never stayed in one place long enough to see the long-term consequences.

Since at least Columbine, pop psychology has linked violence to lonerism. Their violence was blamed on their membership in the self-proclaimed “Trenchcoat Mafia.” But that group’s yearbook photo had ten members; unofficial reports say there may have been fourteen altogether. (Notably, neither Columbine shooter was in that photo.) Both shooters had large circles of friends, mostly comprised of people trying to avoid their bullying. We know how well that worked.

Adults scolding children to befriend outcasts not only require kids to do adult psychological interventions; they demand children, who by definition can’t see the long-term consequences of their actions, do something adults practice only irregularly, with specious results. But putting it that way is just as bad, because it demands children’s actions be measured across the span of years, something we don’t even ask of adults.

Certainly, we should educate youth to see and understand those different from themselves. Historically, this has been among the roles we expect of schools, and one important reason why integrated schools remain important. But we cannot expect kids to to the work of mental health professionals. And we cannot expect them to do better than we, as adults, do. We need to let kids be kids, and stop forcing them to think like miniature adults.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Ethics For Unbelievers: a Ten-Point Plan

James Miller, A Better Ten Commandments: A Guide To Living With, and On Purpose

Over 130 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche postulated that a new philosophy was dawning, a moral structure without recourse to God. But Nietzsche punted on what that philosophy actually looked like. Ever since, unbelieving philosophers great and small have attempted to step into that gap, but their philosophies have generally suffered terminal vagueness, lacking a firm foundation. They’ve mostly offered bromides like “Live Well” and “Be Creative.”

Entrepreneur James Miller becomes the latest to join this chorus, and his moral philosophy is remarkably good. His code, though sometimes suffering the broad generalities that plagued Camus and Russell, nevertheless provides a framework people can use to live a fulfilling and meaningful life, without turning to higher powers. Though a believer myself, I find plenty to like about Miller’s slim, plain-English philosophy. But it isn’t really Ten Commandments.

In his introduction, Miller gives a brief autobiographical precis, including how he came to disbelieve conventional religion, and explains his reasoning process. He pooh-poohs Moses’ original Top Ten because rigid obedience to concise laws creates moral contradictions—a conclusion that wouldn’t surprise theologians from Augustine to Bonhoeffer. Modern, pluralistic society needs more elastic ethics, responsive to today’s difficult moral throes.

Yeah, probably.

Then Miller disparages Moses’ Commandments as “common sense.” That’s problematic. I’ve read sociologists like Duncan J. Watts, who agree that common sense seems obvious mostly because we already know the answer. Though unbelievers could seriously dispute stuff about graven images and keeping the Sabbath, laws about murder, theft, and adultery need to be written down because some people need them spelled out, in black and white.

James Miller
Okay, laying that trepidation aside, what do Miller’s actual “commandments” look like? Pretty good, actually. Exhortations like “Be the Best Version of Thyself,” “Find Perspective,” and “Cultivate a Rational Compassion” make admirable life goals, especially as Miller unpacks exactly what he means. Dedicated opponents could nitpick Miller’s precepts for contradictions, of course, but that’s true of all moral codes, religious or secular. Miller’s code is malleable enough to encompass difficult conditions.

My problem isn’t Miller’s precepts; it’s his reasoning. Moses’ Commandments represent a floor. God supposedly declared these ten standards as a bottom standard below which we cannot sink, and still call ourselves His people. Levitical law works upward from that, creating more intricate rules about why we can’t eat shellfish, razor our beards, or weave cloth from two fabrics. Moses’ Commandments are bottom-up reasoning.

Miller’s Commandments, by contrast, represent top-down reasoning. His Commandments are well-meaning goals we should strive toward, but he requires justification for why they’re important, or what they even mean. The justifications he provides are quite good, drawing on an impressively catholic selection of Eastern and Western philosophy, different religions, science, and more. His reasoning is well-supported, yet somehow never quite finds its floor.

Anyone who’s ever had or worked with children knows it’s possible for obstreperous two-year-olds to lapse into an infinite regression of “But Why?” Adults do something similar when pushing moral boundaries, coming up with reasons why fusty ethics don’t apply in my situation. Parents eventually fall onto the “just because” argument, and religions do much the same, declaring that God unilaterally forbids murder, theft, and adultery, just because, so shhh!

Miller implicitly accepts some moral floor exists somewhere. Early on he writes: “Of course, no rule is perfect, so I must insist on a few caveats. If being the best version of yourself includes unethical or unsustainable behaviors, this rule doesn’t really pan out.” Literally, that’s on page two; versions of this thinking get repeated periodically throughout. So ethics and sustainability exist beneath Miller’s given Top Ten. What, then, are they?

I can’t really say. Though Miller accepts a Platonic ideal of goodness exists somewhere, it remains abstract beneath his standards. Therefore his standards, good though they are, remain beholden to some foundation, somewhere, which we still hope to discover. Without an absolute bottom line, Miller’s “commandments” remain subject to “But Why?” thinking which could literally regress infinitely. That’s how social corruption works. We must draw the line eventually. What does that line look like?

I still don’t know.

Miller provides a workable second-tier moral code without reliance on religion or divine revelation, I’ll give him credit. Readers who already have some idea what ethics and sustainability mean to them could apply his principles productively. But his moral floor remains vaguely defined, the problem which has plagued skeptical philosophers since at least David Hume. Miller provides a good moral framework, admittedly. But it’s too soon to call them Commandments.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reverend Jim's Testimonial Round-Table

Jim Cymbala with Ann Spangler, The Rescue: Seven People, Seven Amazing Stories...

Reverend Jim Cymbala pastors a Brooklyn congregation, so he draws worshipers from the borough’s diverse residents, from successful entrepreneurs to iconoclastic hipsters. All have personal stories, many involving journeys through life’s greatest depths. With their permission, he brings several of them together in one short volume you could read in one energetic reading. They make an interesting glimpse into the mind of the Christian convert experience.

In religious studies, scholars speak of “testimony,” a personal narrative of how one came to profess religion. Testimony is common in highly personal religions, such as Mormonism and Islam, but also evangelical Christianity and Quakerism, as well as in party politics (which often has an evangelical quality), and recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. Being able to describe one’s conversion is a necessary marker of authenticity.

These stories involve a reliable pattern, which Cymbala adheres to. The tellers offer an intimate, detailed personal narrative of their pre-conversion experience, often involving confessing some form of self-seeking. Lucrative but debauched Wall Street careers; sexual promiscuity and drugs; gang involvement. True testimony involves what AA calls “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” which we must share publicly. We must expose the false gods we formerly worshipped.

In voicing these confessions, there’s a fine line between owning up and exhibitionism. I admit personal trepidation during the confession stages, because I formerly had a pastor who would repeatedly confess pre-conversion sexual excesses in lurid detail. It quickly became clear he didn’t regret those days, he missed them. To his credit, Cymbala, telling his parishioners’ stories, doesn’t do this. He manages to land on open-hearted honesty without wallowing in anything.

Reverend Jim Cymbala
So. That’s my first fear about testimony conquered.

But testimony always involves the admission that the thing we sought previously didn’t fill a need. We skidded downward. We hit rock bottom. We reached the point where, like these storytellers, we found ourselves sleeping in an alleyway and contemplating suicide, or struggling against the ravages of sexually transmitted disease, or giving birth at an absurdly young age. The evidence that we’ve lost control stares back at us, sometimes literally.

Cymbala’s conversion narrative requires believers to have some personal experience with God. This may involve an external voice, such as an evangelist, speaking the word aloud; it may involve God speaking inwardly and calling us to action. Either way, it isn’t an academic abstraction or a family inheritance; one believes because one has had something intense happen to them, forcing us to change our lives and perspective.

Accepting that call doesn’t mean we’ll automatically have a good life. Just like the alcoholic or the overeater may lapse back into bad habits, Cymbala’s subjects admit, good Christians can fall into self-seeking behavior and need a second calling. Several of them concede to what Christians call “backsliding.” But in hearing that call and responding to it, these believers accept that their self-made narratives are insufficient for a world too complex for individuals to control.

Thus we enter the final stage of testimony: the post-conversion narrative. Having had that intimate religious experience, the believer confronts life with a renewed sense of purpose, taking on challenges that once seemed insurmountable. Here we see something I appreciate about the testimony tradition: it presents faith as guidance for this life. Not how to get to heaven when we die, but how to face this life we’ve been given, in all its sloppy, uncontrollable glory.

A few testimonies involve the subjects talking about the good things God has delivered them since their conversion. And I do mean things. From the simple, like getting a derailed career back on track, to the vast, like receiving a massive buyout from an unscrupulous former employer, the subjects credit their conversion with material rewards in this world. I admit, I find this squishy, and fear it creates the misapprehension that Christians have things easy in life.

These promises of material reward, however, are outliers. Cymbala mainly focuses on the one trait his converts share: a calling to live more purposefully, with a goal (“eschaton” in theology-speak) in mind. Christianity might provide you material converage for life’s constant uncertainties. More important, it gives you something to life for, something to move toward.

Cymbala writes for two audiences: people unpersuaded by faith, yet open to the experience, and believers seeking reinforcement of their experience. For those audiences, he delivers. He follows the testimony pattern without merely mimicking it, and mostly avoids common stained-glass pitfalls. It’s a good read for current and aspiring believers.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Classic Rock and the Betrayal of History

The Beatles

When I was sixteen, I rebelled against my parents’ household strictures in perhaps the most common way: I started listening to music they didn’t like. As rebellions go, it was pretty boring. Who hasn’t stamped their feet and said, “You just don’t get it, Dad, metal (rap, emo, EDM, punk) is the voice of a generation, and you’re just an old fossil who will never understand.”

Except I rebelled by choosing classic rock radio.

In the early 1990s, classic rock was more narrowly defined than today, because the generation that invented rock still controlled the programming. I consumed a steady diet of the Beatles, the Doors, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, all groups that disbanded before I was born. Sure, my country music-loving parents hated it, as rebellious teenagers always hope. But these rockers were, in many cases, older than my father.

The past had an appeal to moral clarity that I appreciated, and found lacking in then-current society. Issues seemed less contentious, with the simplicity of a medieval morality play: Dr. King was clearly a hero, Bull Connor was clearly a villain. Compared with developing battles over racial gerrymandering, a dispute that remains unresolved today, battles in the past appeared straightforward.

Such moral coherence applied across the board. Labor rights? Americans clearly needed labor unions during the Gilded Age, but strikes today are too fraught. Anti-government protests? Draft protesters during Vietnam stood up for right, but anti-war protesters during Operation Desert Storm didn’t get the moral complexity. Yes, things were pretty awful in the past, but people of high character fixed these problems, and now things were okay.

Music, for me, was the outward expression of this moral outlook.

The Doors

Classic rock radio played music that spoke to important issues, from race (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and Proud”) to war (“Fortunate Son”) to, well, love (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). And it did so in ways that even conservatives found uncontroversial. By 1991, when I embraced such music, even old-school nationalists believed racism, sexism, and Vietnam were wrong… though debate continues about why they persisted, and what the terms even mean.

So, classic rock provided me a way to be politically engaged, while still fleeing the sloppy, morally inconsistent present. If today’s issues seem difficult, without easy resolution, the past seemed uncomplicated and understandable. The important ethical disputes had already been resolved, somewhere around 1973, when FM radio largely stopped playing protest songs. The good guys already won. Everyone else could go home.

But if heroes like Dr. King already won, everybody else, it followed, needed to stop fighting. Civil rights activists, trade unionists, feminists: give up! We’ve already given you what you asked for! This isn’t an exaggeration. I seriously believed all moral issues were resolved two or three years before I was born, ipso facto, QED. Nor was I alone; earlier this month, I heard someone saying trade unions were important in 1956, but needed to cede the moral high ground today.

In those pre-Internet days, realizing my morally absolute worldview, for which classic rock radio served as shorthand, wasn’t easy. One couldn’t Google “Top Hits of 1968” and see that mawkish trifles like Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” outscored muscular classics like Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” or that crap like the Lemon Pipers and 1910 Fruitgum Company even existed. Classic Rock Radio edited these travesties out.

Any casual stumble backward through Casey Kasem’s archives reveals that Top-40 music has always been dominated by swill. Most hits from the past aren’t worth listening to. Professionals have curated how we perceive the past, removing inconsistencies and room-temperature fillers. When I realized this, I began realizing the past was much messier than high school history textbooks will admit. Important debates aren’t resolved. History isn’t a closed case file.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

In 2014, Colorado students staged a mass walkout because their school rewrote their AP American History course to emphasize patriotism and loyalty over facts and ambiguity. Looking back on myself at that age, I realize now, I would’ve sided with the school. I couldn’t accept ambiguity then, and I justified it substantially on a sanitized vision of yesteryear that was curated by for-profit institutions. Like radio programmers, for instance.

Classic rock radio isn’t malicious. But in certain ways, it’s deeply dishonest. It’s part of an industrial cleansing of our shared heritage, eliminating uncertainty. Most music then, as now, was unlistenable piffle. And most social issues then, as now, were characterized by deep doubts and moral compromise. We just can’t see it anymore.